By Stephen Caruso
For the Pittsburgh Current
In response to the rapid spread of COVID-19, the Pennsylvania House adopted rules allowing its 203 members to vote on bills that address the ongoing public health crisis even if they are not in Harrisburg.
The changes came after a weekend of sharp words, pressure to abide by new social distancing norms, and follow three hours of mostly closed doors meetings Monday.
With the new rules in place, lawmakers will return home. They would be called upon to use the new voting rules if ongoing negotiations between the Republican General Assembly and Gov. Tom Wolf bears legislative fruit.
Agenda items have included bills to address both emergency response, health care, and workforce issues laid bare by the coronavirus, from expanding telehealth to tweaks to the state worker’s compensation laws.
In a statement, House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said the changes will allow the chamber to be part of a solution to the pandemic and have a voice in Harrisburg’s decisions to address it.
“We are living in a worldwide event of the magnitude many of us have never experienced,” Cutler said. “Leaders at state, federal and local levels are working constantly to stay ahead of the next development and keep their communities safe and operating.”
Previously, lawmakers could only cast a vote if they were in the Capitol. Now, lawmakers may cast a vote from any location, by filing their “yes” or “no” with the caucus’ whip.
Lawmakers can only vote remotely on bills when there “has been consultation” between the Republican and Democratic leaders.
“In light of the declared world pandemic and our Commonwealth’s methodical response, this is a good short-term approach to get work done in Harrisburg,” House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said in a statement.
The changes, he added, meant legislation could be thorough and thoughtful, “not some quick and haphazard actions that haven’t been adequately considered.” Dermody called for the House to consider such ideas as paid sick leave, assistance for health care workers, changes to school attendance rules in light of the health crisis.
The new rules also shrink the amount of time lawmakers have to review bill changes before a final vote. They also allow lawmakers to send coronavirus-related emails to constituents from their legislative office even before elections.
The changes are in effect until Wolf ends the coronavirus disaster declaration he issued March 6.
As of Monday, the state Department of Health had identified 76 cases in 14 counties. Wolf also asked for a statewide shutdown of bars, restaurants, retail outlets and other non-essential businesses Monday. He previously shuttered all state public schools Friday for two weeks, until March 30.
House GOP leadership, particularly Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, faced harsh criticism from Democrats for seemingly bringing lawmakers and their staff to the Capitol without a clear agenda.
As of now, @MikeTurzai and @PAGOP stubbornly insist on us coming in to Harrisburg for session – putting us, our families, and constituents at risk while we fight to contain COVID-19 throughout the commonwealth – all to name some bridges and honor Ronald Regan in resolutions.
— Summer Lee (@SummerForPA) March 15, 2020
Similar voting rules are already in place in the Senate, according to the chamber’s parliamentarian Megan Martin. Senators may cast a vote if on official legislative duties either in or outside the Capitol.
Senate Republican spokesperson Jenn Kocher said discussions about further changes are ongoing.
The Senate was scheduled to meet this week, but has already cancelled two days of the session. A third day of the session, planned for Wednesday, could hinge on the results of a Senate staffer’s coronavirus test.
Stephen Caruso is a staff writer for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star where this story first appeared.